Review: NW by Zadie Smith

Last night’s 90 minute BBC2 adaptation has been acclaimed from all quarters. Here’s why you should read the novel

Zadie Smith. Photo: Dominique Nabokov
Zadie Smith. Photo: Dominique Nabokov
The BBC’s careful adaptation of a difficult – and I would have previously said unfilmable – novel drew widespread praise from both reviewers and social media last night. The uncompromising tale of a two ‘best’ friends from north-west London and their wider lives, set in a grim, difficult present, has acquired a state-of-the-nation power.

So if you enjoyed the (faithful) film, I would highly recommend the novel itself. Written in 2012, it too follows the interactions of four people around Willesden and Queen’s Park: best female friends Leah and Natalie, who cling to a lifelong love/hate relationship, and two other men, Felix and Nathan, who all grew up on the same fictional estate, Caldwell. The tragi-comic novel is divided into four distinct sections, each with its own stylistic quirks.

Leah’s opener is a stream-of-conciousness with dialogue signified by dashes rather than inverted commas. Not much happens really, except Leah answers the door to con-artist, Shar, to whom she gives money and is oddly attracted (much to the chagrin of husband and friends).

Felix’s story comes next, a more conventional past tense prose, which takes place over a single day as he visits his father, tries to buy a secondhand car, and argues with a bohemian ex-lover.


Nikki Amuka-Bird plays Natalie in the BBC adaptation. Photo: BBC
Nikki Amuka-Bird plays Natalie in the BBC adaptation. Photo: BBC
The third part, divided into 184 numbered episodes, focuses on Natalie, now a lawyer, married to a banker, who lives in a big house on Queen’s Park. It’s in this central narrative that we realize she is the main character, if there is one at all, plagued as she is by self-doubt, and possessing a ‘strong desire to slip into the lives of other people.’

And the final part introduces Nathan, a homeless junkie. Bored? As in the TV version, you won’t (or shouldn’t) be. There’s plenty to enjoy, just don’t expect a page-turner. NW especially shines in its dialogue: spot-on and dangerously accurate, from its street characters to Smith’s portrayal of Natalie, the girl who always thinks something better is going on elsewhere. Even giving birth can’t fill the overwhelming vacuity of her existence.

Zadie Smith is adroitly perceptive and expresses some wry universal truths, especially for late thirtysomethings. Contemporary American writer Nicholson Baker, famous for ‘de-emphasizing’ narrative in favour of character, once asked: “The question any novel is really trying to answer is: Is life worth living?” And with NW, the answer is yes. But it’s not an easy yes.

This is box title
NW the film can be seen on BBC iPlayer. And the book is widely avaiable in local bookshops like Owl and Daunt.


  • Show Comments